January 1998

Engagement of Governance with Spirituality

Towards a Complexification of the Political Image of Religions

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There continue to be a significant number of continuing conflicts in which religion plays a major role (eg Middle East, Northern Ireland, Algeria). Religious fundamentalism continues to emerge as a significant cause of unrest and tension in societies, whether or not this leads to physical violence. Fundamentalism continues to be as significant within Christianity and Judaism as it is within Islam. It is also playing an increasingly role in other religions (eg Hinduism).

There are contradictory tendencies towards increased apathy with respect to institutionalized religion and increased interest in informal spirituality. Particular religions have proved reluctant to assist in clarifying the different tendencies within their own faith in its broadest sense, preferring to reinforce distinctions between that religion and others.

Institutionalized religions continue to ally themselves with particular nationalistic policies (eg in Serbia) and to take strong positions on particular issues of current importance to governance (eg population planning, cloning, abortion, education, media content). The issue of sects and their influence, and the definition of legitimate religious activity, remains a policy concern (as illustrated by the case of scientology).

Whilst there are many efforts to reconcile differences between major religious traditions, the practical results are relatively modest.


The challenge for governments is to develop a fruitful attitude towards these phenomena. This is especially the case when such an attitude is the basis for internal policy or foreign policy.

There is a marked tendency to over-simplify political understanding of religion. In traditionally Christian countries, for example, it is dangerously easy to stereotype fundamentalism as Islamic fundamentalism. This leads to treatment of Islam as a potential political menace analogous to the role played by Communism in the past.

The question is whether the political image of religion can be complexified as a basis for more subtle and discerning policies. This requires insights from institutionalized religion -- whilst remaining credible to those who value spiritual belief independent of such institutionalization.

The process should be designed in such a way as not to interfere with any ongoing dialogues between particular religions. Its purpose is to improve the quality of understanding informing the relationship of religions to governments and intergovernmental institutions -- as understood by policy-makers.


It is proposed that a meeting be held at which the views of a range of religions and spiritual perspectives should be presented.

The purpose of the meeting would be to help clarify governmental understanding of religions and spiritual perspectives -- but only to the extent that these can be demonstrated to be of significance to government policy-making.


People, whether from particular religions or those capable of articulating their positions, would be invited to make presentations at the meeting.

On the occasion of the event, care would need to be taken to distinguish the roles of:

  • written presentations: appropriate to background and detailed arguments, citation of sources
  • verbal presentations: appropriate to clarification of principal insights to assembled participants, and
  • dialogue: appropriate to refinement of insights and establishment of correspondence or differences between perspectives
  • overview reports: endeavouring to provide a common context for the perspectives presented that would be of value to policy-makers.

It is important to guard against the tendency to produce only a series of relatively indigestible lengthy reports when the need of policy-makers is for a comprehensible framework that is more subtle than that currently available. In this respect the emphasis is on comprehension of perspectives rather than persuasion as to their validity. The different religious perspectives need to be understood by policy-makers in a manner analogous to that of other policy constituencies.

In this light, two special methodological approaches merit consideration:

(a) Image and metaphor: Politicians deal increasingly in images in debates on issues and policies are increasingly communicated through the media in terms of images and metaphor. The question is through what images would religions choose to articulate their perspectives in relation to the challenges of governance. Policy-makers need richer metaphors and images through which to understand and discuss the policy implications of spiritual issues.

Participants at the proposed meeting might therefore be asked to focus their conclusions on the metaphors through they prefer to have their particular concerns understood in contrast to those of other religions. Note that in the dialogue phase of the meeting, it may well be more fruitful to dialogue about the metaphors used rather than refer constantly to texts.

(b) Spiritual map: In order to avoid the tendency to treat spiritual issues purely in relation to current short-term policy crises, the many different spiritual tendencies need to be more effectively positioned together on a map. Such a map provides a sense of context in relation to which long-term policies can be developed and discussed.

Such a map could be a major outcome of the event and would have a variety of uses. Whether a single tentative map is produced, or whether several maps are produced, emphasis should be placed on the need to refine this mapping process with all the skills of modern artwork and computer-aided design. In the case of geographical maps, there has always been a tendency to produce maps that position particular countries "at the centre". There is no harm in this preferred positioning for the religion's constituency -- provided there is an understanding of how many such maps can be combined. Historically, in the case of geo-political maps, this has been achieved by projecting all such maps onto a spherical surface -- in this case the planetary globe.

The challenge is whether a similar "globe" could be used to explain the perspectives and differences of the many religions and spiritual tendencies. Progress towards the design of such a globe would be a major political and symbolic achievement of the proposed gathering. It would also give space to seemingly eccentric perspectives that otherwise may seek to establish their relevance in radical ways that constitute a major political challenge.

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